When 50-year-old Walter Scott was pulled over by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., Saturday, it was under the guise of a broken taillight. When he fled from that stop, his family said he possibly ran for fear of a warrant out for his arrest over child support. And when video revealed that Officer Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed Scott as he ran away, it contradicted the yarn Slager had spun about Scott wrestling away his Taser and the officer’s life being threatened.
The video revealed an ugly truth beyond the fact that Slager killed an unarmed man who was of no threat to him. It revealed that Scott did not die because he was a criminal or had defied an officer’s orders; he died because he was black and poor.
Scott had a warrant out for his arrest—not for robbery or homicide—but for child support, a nonviolent crime that affects families. Neither stopping him for a broken taillight nor killing him for running does anything to provide for his children, raise city revenue or alleviate society’s ills—unless you believe that the very poverty Scott suffered was also his most fatal crime.
There is no explicit law that says people can’t be poor in America, but there are a lot of laws, if broken, that will ensure you stay poor.
The sometimes violent, often punitive enforcement of child support fits right in with other “keep ’em poor” policing tactics that turn traffic violations, homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction into arrest-worthy crimes. If you have money, they’re inconveniences, but if you’re subsisting on a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, they are monumental.
If you are wealthy and can’t or don’t pay child support, you can hire a lawyer and create an elaborate defense. Tickets? You either pay them off or fight them in court. Money allows you to easily hide your recreational-drug use or hire legal counsel when you can’t. No worries about loitering because your home is a house, not the curb. When taillights break on your car, they are replaced. And if you are mentally ill with money, you’re not actually “mentally ill” at all, but among our most protected class: trust-fund babies who suffer from “affluenza.”
If you’re poor, you are one broken taillight from homelessness—or, in Scott’s tragic case, death.
It starts off with only making minimum wage, barely able to afford your housing, so you delay making small fixes on your car. This results in your getting stopped by an officer who writes you a ticket. You can’t afford to pay the ticket, so you avoid it, causing the fine to double or triple. You don’t show up in court to contest the ticket because you can’t afford to take off work or your job will not allow you to. The court issues a bench warrant for your arrest, and you get stopped again because you are still unable to afford to fix your car, which is full of delicious violations for an officer with a ticket quota to write up.
The police arrest you for your warrant and you are held in jail for several days. Because you are in jail, you end up losing your job. You still can’t pay the fines. Your license may even be suspended, but you need your car to find work, so you keep driving. You eventually get stopped again, get arrested again, get fined and ticketed again, and your car gets impounded (which, since losing your income, was doubling as your home).
Because you have no job, you cannot get your car out of impound, you cannot pay your tickets, you cannot pay your child support and you are now rendered homeless. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can crash with a friend or relative. But you have a mountain of tickets and threats of imprisonment over your head.
Walter Scott’s is a story of poverty, racial profiling and policeman-turned-revenue collector.
This sad tale plays out across the country and was particularly familiar in Ferguson, Mo., where the Department of Justice accused the St. Louis suburb of targeting the city’s poor black residents for police profit.
What are the solutions? Maybe a man running from a broken taillight shouldn’t be treated with the same weight as an active shooter situation. Maybe the concept of the lawman as taxman, fighting poverty with his most readily accessible tools—a Taser and a gun—is a bad one. Do towns like North Charleston or Ferguson even need police officers if they’re more busy looking for crimes than fighting them?
It’s debatable. But what’s not is this fact: Nobody wants to be poor, no matter the erroneous tales of welfare queens and deadbeat dads. Nobody wants to be poor, because the price you pay for your degradation comes with a debt so profound, it may take generations to escape. It is a debt you pay in pain and, in Scott’s case, with your life.